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  • Scott Carter Cooper

Faggot

I have been devouring Netflix. My favorite thing is the diversity of programming. There is literally something for everybody, and while the LGBT+ content is a little unimaginative, it’s there.


This past weekend I binged Friends from College. It wasn’t perfect, but the cast was fantastic. Fred Savage is adorable. And should never be cast as a gay man again.

So, when I finished that series, I had an odd amount of time left. Not enough to get too engaged in anything, but the perfect amount of time for a comedy special. Chris Rock’s new Netflix special was available, and at ninety minutes longer than I really wanted but it’s Chris Rock. Never a waste of time.


The last set I remember of his was bright, fast, sharp without being caustic. Insightful without being preachy. I watched it three or four times. Historically good. His most recent offering?


Not so much.


The special starts out with an extended clip of an appearance with Jimmy Fallon. It’s funny. He’s charming. Jimmy Fallon appears to be wetting himself with laughter. When this ends, we move into the recorded live set. Very different from what is expected. The set is dark. The lighting moody. The venue probably seats about six hundred. The material starts off drier than expected, but it’s Chris Rock and I’m along for the ride. About ten minutes in, I notice that all of the visible audience is Black. Not really a surprise but noted. Then I realize that the material is specifically for a Black audience. This is a bit unexpected, but I’m OK with not being the target audience. I rarely am. And then he tells “the joke.”


Up until this point, Rock has been discussing policing and the Black community. There are not a lot of laughs in the subject matter, but Rock manages to wring some humor from the subject while making some important points. The audience seems to be coolly receptive. It’s the start of the set and it’s Chris Rock. Things will get good.


As the set progresses, he starts to talk about his family’s history with guns and tells the story of his grandfather taking him hunting when he was a boy. Rock shot a rabbit, and the trauma of killing a bunny made the young Chris Rock cry. There’s potential here. The punchline? Grandpa Rock called Chris a faggot.


Faggot.


He used the word.


Chris Rock used the word faggot as a punchline. In a Netflix special. And the audience laughed.


I imagine moments like this happen to everybody, when you suddenly see someone in an unexpected way. Chris Rock is smart. He’s successful. He’s cultured. He’s Black.

And he said the word faggot.


As a punchline.


At first, what struck me was just how inartful the joke structure was. Perhaps it was the sound mixing. Perhaps it was because it was the start of the set and Rock is intentionally going for mild laughter, but the audience response seemed to reflexive. He delivered the word as a punchline. As an audience member, I knew I was supposed to laugh. He held for it. He’s Chris Rock. If he’s holding for a laugh you give the man a laugh.


“One may smile and smile and be a villain.” I did my first production of Hamlet at the age of nineteen, and it was decades before I fully realized the truth in that line. In my corporate life, I have a very nice day job, but in it I’ve learned one thing about my coworkers. It’s not “Is this person homophobic?” It’s “How homophobic is this person.” It’s a tough lesson to learn because some of the most charming people I’ve ever met have had the deepest streaks of homophobia. It’s expressed as “tolerance.” Personally, I respect outright bigotry over tolerance, but tolerance is what gets people through the day.


But I expect more from some people. People who’ve experienced world-wide success. People who’ve traveled in the upper echelons of society. People who’ve had conversations with Michelle Obama. A world-traveled Black man. I expect them to have at least a basic understanding of the impact of that word. Chris Rock should understand that there are words that carry such distilled hatred, there are only very specific contexts in which they are used, and a punchline is not one of them. I’m sure he can think of at least one other word that falls into that category.


He used the word as a punchline. He should know better. He does know better.


He did it anyway.


After my analytical brain made a clinical assessment of the joke itself, and noted the audience reaction, I realized what had just happened. And that oh-so-familiar wave of cool disappointment washed over me. It was like a breeze. What was different this time was there was no hurt. There was no tightening of the gut. There was no hot assault of shame. The cool breeze of disappointment usually comes much later. After the jaw-clenching when you realize you’ve been betrayed. When you realize the person who is so severely limited that for a Netflix comedy special the best he can offer is a hateful word as a punchline that would embarrass a seventh grader, there is really nothing left to do but to turn the television off.

There really are better things to do with your time.And Chris Rock will never get a minute more of mine.

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